By RYAN JARVI
Ironwood - Michigan state legislators visited Gogebic Community College in Ironwood on Tuesday to discuss a number of issues including mining, western Upper Peninsula broadband access and road funding.
State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, joined State Reps. John Kivela (D-Marquette), Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), and Scott Dianda (D-Calumet), for a town hall style meeting attended by a small group of people.
Part of the reason behind the meeting was to show the public U.P. legislators can work together regardless of party lines.
"We kind of checked the party thing at the door when it comes to the Upper Peninsula and the issues up here, and we work as a team together," Kivela said.
A focus of the meeting was mining and how the state can use its natural resources to improve its economy.
Casperson mentioned a recent story by The New York Times.
"There was a report on the top 10 states in the union that have faired the best out of this last great recession we went through," Casperson said. "And the top five had something all in common. ... They all are utilizing their natural resources, every one of them."
He went on to discuss the high standards for mining operations he supported that were passed into law.
"The opportunities are right there," Casperson said. "The Upper Peninsula should be a leader in bringing the state of Michigan back because of the opportunities we have right now."
Casperson said the big issue facing the U.P. in the future will be power, as the area relies on power plants from Wisconsin and one in Marquette, which is expected to close.
Kivela said his district produces 25 percent of the domestic iron ore, and will have the only nickel mine in the U.S.
"I'm very well versed on mining," he said. "It can be done safely, efficiently, and we need to support it."
Gogebic Community College president Jim Lorenson said colleges and universities across the state have made it a priority to share programs, services and courses.
He said GCC could better live up to that agreement with increased broadband access in the western U.P.
Legislators discussed a radio system for the Michigan State Police.
The towers could be used to increase the area's connectivity, and the $1.2 billion bond for the system is up in 2017.
"I know that is something we all are interested in, because our rural areas, we need the broadband," Dianda said. "All of these counties in the Upper Peninsula need it. That's another aspect of business we lose out on. People can operate businesses in Ontonagon County, Gogebic, down in Menominee, anywhere, Sault Ste. Marie, because they have that high speed internet. ... We've got to get those businesses here."
McBroom supported the possibility of using the towers and sat on the energy and technology committee his first year as a representative. The issue was discussed quite a bit, he said.
"The real roadblock on this, was corporate interests that don't want to allow government to play a part in providing this service to the public because they want to provide it, which sounds fine," he said.
"Allow the free market to work, right. Well the free market dictates that its not worth their time to build a tower out in a place like the U.P. where there aren't enough users to get their costs back."
Kivela mentioned what has happened in Marquette years ago when Northern Michigan University started its Wi-Max network that now stretches across several towns.
"That's ultimately what brought the president to the U.P ., to show that small rural communities can succeed globally by doing this," he said.
The legislators also discussed road funding, which Casperson said needs some improving.
"We have to have a stable funding source if we really want to fix this, I think, for the future to come," he said. "It's not working, to try and come back to the people every three or four years to address this isn't going to work. We see that. And I think the gas tax, the way we've designed it, is not a good system for the future with the way we're going."
A lot of the tax goes toward public schools with little going to repair the roads, Casperson said.
"There's not a lot of tax on gasoline, but an awful lot of it doesn't go to the roads," he said. "That's where the real fix is if we're going to fix this long-term, and then we have an educational funding problem that needs to be addressed."
McBroom said he sees both the educational funding and transportation funding "linked at the gas pump."
"They've got to be fixed together," he said.
Similar town hall meetings have been held in Calumet, Newberry and Marquette, and the legislators are scheduled for two more, both from 6-7 p.m ., local times.
The first will be today at Bay College West in Iron Mountain. Thursday's will be at the City Commission Chambers in Escanaba.
All legislators are on the November ballot seeking re-election.